In 1996, Gary Pittman had just gone on to serve as NHL commissioner for three years when the Winnipeg Jets were sold to an investment group headed by Richard Burke and relocated to Phoenix.
I don’t recall Pittman going through much of a struggle to keep the team in Winnipeg at that time. so cold. Very small market. Very old square. The Canadian dollar traded at or below 70 cents compared to its US dollar counterpart. It meant operating a team there—or anywhere else in Canada’s small market—in the NHL’s pre-salary pre-salary proposition was a financially risky proposition.
Honestly, what could non-poor Gary, and the NHL Board of Governors, do other than agree to a team transfer? After all, Bettman was originally set out to help the league grow as a business. Phoenix seemed like the holy grail. Fifth largest city by population in the United States. An important place to fill the NHL’s American television footprint.
And for a while, it looked promising.
People forget: Early years America West Arena, the downtown Phoenix facility they shared with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns, was full and it was buzzing. Unfortunately, the building was completely unsuitable for hockey. Because it was built to house the basketball team, the seating at one end of the court was completely barred.
not perfect. However, for a while it looked as if it would work.
Until it did not happen.
The Wolves became a TV series. The move to suburban Glendale was a disaster on many fronts. A series of owners and potential owners each get a six-episode story. Remember Steve Elman (and his minority partner, a guy named Gretzky)? Jerry Moyes? George Joseby? Andrew Barway? Alex Meruelo? These are just some of the people who eventually get a full or partial ownership stake in the team.
There were also failed attempts by Jerry Reinsdorf, Matt Hulsizer, Greg Jamison, Darin Pastor, and the Ice Edge Group, all of whom kicked tires on the Coyotes and for one reason or another, did not complete or were unable to buy.
The most publicized of the failed attempts to buy the Coyotes came from BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie, who wanted to move the team to Hamilton, Ont. This attempted sale was eventually blocked by a court, on behalf of the NHL.
Ultimately, the league ended up managing the team for four years after Moyes declared bankruptcy, which left Pittman in charge of the de facto CEO position.
In fact, the coyote became Bateman’s white whale, the albatrossthe thing he couldn’t let go of.
In many other aspects of his job, and his corporate life, Bateman is very practical and down-to-earth. So, Q Sera Sera.
Wolves have become personal. They became an obsession. The more people tell him to let it go – and let them go somewhere else – the more insistent Batman is that they must stay. The Coyotes played last season at the 4,500-seat Mullett Arena on the campus of ASU.
It was meant to be a temporary measure for three to four years until the team could build a new arena in Tempe. Note here: Under no circumstances will Bateman agree to a bivouac similar to any other team.
He did it for the Coyotes because he had a lot of personal capital invested in keeping them in Arizona. But on Tuesday, voters in the Phoenix suburb voted against three proposals to build a $2.1 billion recreation area that would have included a new arena for coyotes.
Bettman personally appeared at all of the Tempe City Council meetings where the arena project was discussed, swinging on behalf of the team. He promised that the wolves would be in Arizona forever if the building was approved. He didn’t do it for Winnipeg. or Atlanta.
Officially, once they received the bad news on Tuesday night, both the league and the team responded with similar statements. Pitman was “terribly disappointed” with the results of the referendum, and the Coyotes were “very disappointed”. Both statements promised that the team owners and commissioner would meet to assess what comes next for the franchise over the coming weeks.
Realistically, there is only one logical path.
Sell the team and move it to another location. Houston would be the easy choice. It is another major American city without an NHL team. A natural competitor to the Dallas Stars. A team that could fit nicely into the current make-up of a regular conference. Salt Lake City, Kansas City and Portland will also meet the latter criteria. Twice Atlanta has already failed an NHL franchise, but support appears to be growing there for a third attempt.
And of course, there’s the big appeal of returning to Quebec City, which also lost its team around the same time the original Jets moved to Phoenix. Practically speaking, getting into an actual hockey market like Quebec is low on the league’s priority list and perhaps just a pipe dream for fans (and a few jaded hockey writers, who remember what it was like when Quebec City was the NHL’s answer to the Green Bay Packers) .
At this point, after a crushing defeat at the ballot box, you might imagine that even Batman is finally ready to admit defeat and let go. But knowing Batman and his rulebook, he can’t or won’t let that happen, at least not right away. It looks like it’s over.
If keeping the franchise in Arizona wasn’t a fixation for Bettman, you’d think it would be safe to expect it to He is more.
Logically, practically, and financially, this fascination with Arizona is over. But what do they say?
The best way to predict future behavior is to pay attention to the past. After 27 years of Bettman drumming on behalf of this franchise, there’s a part of me that thinks he’s not ready to wave the white flag just yet. on the contrary. Knowing the way Bettman thinks and works, no one should be surprised if he doesn’t try – one last time – to pull another rabbit out of his hat and keep the team in Arizona.
Let’s see if I’m right.
(Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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